Supporting article R: An overview of energy resources and a future-look at alternatives
The Coming Energy Crisis
(Originally Published November-December, 2000 In Infinite Energy Magazine Issue #34)
by Dohn Riley
Two hundred years ago, the world experienced an energy revolution that launched the Industrial Age. The catalyst to this epochal shift was ordinary black coal, an energy-rich hydrocarbon that supplanted wood as the primary fuel. The energy stored in coal gave inventors and industrialists the power they needed to process steel, propel steamships, and energize machines. A century later, the industrialized world’s thirst for energy had increased tremendously. Petroleum and natural gas were exploited as versatile and high quality energy products, and soon joined coal as principal fuels. Fifty years later, scientists tapped uranium to fuel nuclear reactors and provide atomic energy.
Today, cheap energy is the lifeblood of American society. But there is a dangerous dark side to relying on non-renewable resources like coal, oil, natural gas, or uranium to supply our growing energy demands. The supply of these fuels is physically limited, and their use threatens our health and environment. Fears of global warming aside, burning fossil fuel releases chemicals and particulates that can cause cancer, brain and nerve damage, birth defects, lung injury, and breathing problems. The toxic stew released by combusting hydrocarbons pollutes the air and water, and causes acid rain and smog.
Nuclear energy, once touted as “too cheap to meter,” has never been economically successful when all costs are factored in, and fear of disasters like the Chernobyl reactor melt-down have virtually shut the industry down in the U.S. and Europe. Inexpensive and seemingly abundant nonrenewable energy fueled the twentieth century economy, but geologists, climatologists, environmentalists, and many others are warning that the honeymoon may soon be over.
Coal is the most abundant of the carbon-based fossil fuels, but it is also a leading threat to human health and the environment. Coal currently provides 24% of the world’s primary energy requirements and, in 1999, generated 57% of all the electricity used in the U.S. Existing coal reserves may be large, but they won’t last forever, and health and environmental costs limit its potential as an acceptable fuel in the future. Burning coal currently accounts for 43% of all annual global carbon emissions, about 2.7 billion tons.
The top ten most air-polluted cities in the world—nine in China, one in India—all use coal as a primary energy source. Atmospheric scientists have tracked large dust clouds of particulates and sulfur from Asia to the United States’ west coast. In the U.S., coal reserves surpass those of oil and natural gas by about two hundred years and can be mined domestically, but using coal simply because there is plenty of it would be a serious mistake. Air pollution, acid rain, greenhouse gas emissions, and other health dangers associated with processing coal into electricity take their toll on countless people around the world. Western governments rarely discuss “coal” and the “future” in the same sentence anymore, but burning coal has become a global problem that respects no international boundaries.
Cheap and abundant oil is an intoxicating elixir that the world’s industrial nations have guzzled down as if there is no tomorrow. Petroleum currently accounts for 40% of the world’s energy, but many geologists anticipate an oil supply crisis sometime within the next two decades when global demand will exceed supply. While some argue that huge deposits of oil may lie undetected in far-off locations of the globe, experts point out that there is only so much crude in the world, and industry has found about 90% of it. The world’s burgeoning population is dependent on food grown with petroleum-based fertilizers, cultivated by machines running on cheap fuel.
In 1950, the U.S. was producing half the world’s oil. Fifty years later, we don’t produce half our own oil. Domestic production peaked in 1970. Originally, America was blessed with about 260 billion barrels; only one country, Saudi Arabia, had more. Although the U.S. is now the world’s third largest producer, about 65% of our known oil has been burned. It’s downhill from here. The U.S. has 4% of the world’s people but slurps down 25% of the world’s oil. If the Chinese annually consumed oil at the same per capita rate as Americans, there would be none available for anyone else.
Natural gas (methane) is being touted by energy providers as an abundant clean fuel for the twenty-first century. It is forecast to be the fastest growing primary energy source, because it burns cleaner than coal or oil. But this resource is also nonrenewable, and the Department of Energy states that the U.S. has only 3.5% of the world’s total natural gas reserves-enough to last about sixty-five years. More than 70% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves are located in the politically risky Persian Gulf and former Soviet Union. After 2020, the bulk of the world’s remaining supplies of both oil and natural gas will be centered there.
According to the Energy Information Administration, natural gas provides 27% of the energy used today. Similar to their consumption of oil, Americans consume more than their share of natural gas; in 1997, the U.S. used 28% of the world’s total production. Consumption in the U.S. and Canada is expected to grow 50% by 2020, enforced in part by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which are designed to curb acid rain, toxic emissions, and urban air pollution. Compared to the combustion of oil and coal, natural gas combustion is relatively benign as a contributor to air pollution. American troops have already shed blood in the Middle East protecting our oil interests; relying on natural gas for a primary energy source has similar costs and risks.
Nuclear energy presents similar problems to those associated with non-renewable fossil fuels. The planet’s supply of uranium is limited, and mining the ore is hazardous to human health. Worse, the radioactive waste byproducts are a lethal long-term danger to the environment. In 1999, nuclear energy provided about 17% of the world’s electricity, but splitting the atom to boil water is like using a chainsaw to cut butter. The health and environmental costs of using atomic energy have become serious obstacles to the industry. Disposal of radioactive waste has proven to be a much greater problem than originally estimated. Nuclear power does not contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but a good solution to safely storing tons and tons of radioactive waste, a nuclear byproduct that remains dangerous to all life-forms for thousands of years, remains elusive.
In the 1950s and 1960s, atomic energy was hailed as an unlimited panacea to the pollution problems generated by fossil fuels, and destined to be so cheap that electric companies wouldn’t even put meters on houses. Today, there is little support among Americans and Europeans for fission nuclear energy. Nobody wants a nuclear reactor in their backyard, and frightening publicity regarding reactor meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island has only reinforced these fears. Health officials estimate that at least 4,365 people who took part in the Chernobyl cleanup have died in the Ukraine. [Editor’s note: These high figures are disputed by some experts.-EFM] The risk from nuclear power plants and nuclear-waste disposal sites demands a vigilance and longevity of our social institutions that is unprecedented.
Coal, natural gas, and uranium are alternative non-renewable energy resources to cheap oil, but each has advantages and limitations, and none is as versatile as petroleum. The replacement of oil will require a mix of energy sources, including clean renewable energy such as solar and wind power. This adjustment will involve substantial reorganization of the world’s economic structure and significant lifestyle changes in the industrialized countries.
Economists like to point out that the world contains enormous caches of unconventional oil that can substitute for crude oil as soon as the price becomes competitive. It is true that resources of heavy oil, tar sands, and shale deposits exist in large quantities. But the industry will be hard-pressed for the time and money needed to ramp up production of unconventional oil quickly enough to forestall an economic crisis. Experts who point out the approaching end of Hydrocarbon Man are not pessimists or alarmists; they are simply saying now is the time to plan, lest the end of cheap fossil fuels be an unprecedented disaster in human history.
Renewable energy will play a major role in the energy industry of the twenty-first century and beyond. British Petroleum, Royal Dutch/Shell, and other companies are investing heavily in renewable sources of energy. Industry experts realize that these alternative energy systems not only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they predict that over the next half century, renewables may grow to supply half the world’s energy.
Successfully generating electricity by harnessing the perpetual power of the Sun and wind is not only technologically feasible, it is already a reality. Solar power relies on the energy produced by nuclear fusion in the Sun. This energy can be collected and converted in different ways, such as simple water heating for domestic use or by the direct conversion of sunlight to electrical energy using mirrors, boilers, or photovoltaic cells. The technology is improving and the economics are getting more competitive. Photovoltaic panels don’t generate electricity at night, but they can be used to produce hydrogen in the daytime, which can then be stored.
Scientists and engineers are continually improving the efficiency of renewable energy systems. Humans have been harnessing the wind for thousands of years, and are now cleanly producing electricity with it. Air flowing through turbines or spinning blades generates power that can be used to pump water or generate electricity. Wind energy is now the world’s fastest growing energy source and has become one of the most rapidly expanding industries.
Wind power has some drawbacks; a “wind farm” requires extensive areal coverage to produce significant amounts of energy, and bird fatalities have been a concern. The wind industry is modifying equipment to address this issue but also points out that countless wild creatures are killed every year as part of the acquisition and distribution of conventional energy sources.
Hydroelectric power is another source of renewable energy. Hydroelectric dams, however, are no longer considered environmentally benign sources of power. Fisheries and other wildlife habitat have been severely impacted on many dammed rivers. Most of the world’s hydroelectric dams are historically recent, but all reservoirs eventually fill up and require very expensive excavation to become useful again. At this time, most of the available locations for hydroelectric dams in the U.S. are already developed.
Humans have been burning biomass materials since the dawn of time, and it is still the principal fuel used in many parts of the world. Incredibly, just 120 years ago, wood was the chief energy source in the U.S. But today’s economy runs on oil, and despite significant government support, converting wood to alcohol, or corn to ethanol has proven neither economical nor energy efficient. Researchers have recently discovered how to produce clean combustible gas from waste products such as sewage and crop residue, but biomass gas will not soon replace petroleum as the fuel of choice.
Hydrogen has been touted as the fuel of the future. It is the most abundant element known in the universe and can be burned cleanly as a fuel for vehicles with water as the main combustion byproduct. Hydrogen can also be fed into a fuel cell, a battery-like device that generates heat and electricity. Using hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel will significantly reduce the health hazards and medical costs associated with the exhaust from conventional internal combustion engines. But the large-scale extraction of hydrogen from terrestrial resources such as water, coal, or natural gas requires a lot of energy, which is currently produced by burning fossil fuels. Commercial hydrogen production is expensive and only shifts the pollution from vehicles back to the power plants. Producing hydrogen with solar power is the dream of environmentalists and renewable energy proponents. If done successfully, hydrogen and electricity will eventually become society’s primary energy carriers in the twenty-first century.
Geothermal energy left over from the original accretion radioactive decay seeps out slowly everywhere, everyday. In certain areas, the geothermal gradient (increase in temperature with depth) is high enough to exploit for the generation of electricity. Another form of geothermal energy can be tapped from the planet’s surface. Soil maintains a relatively constant temperature throughout the year and can be used with heat pumps to warm a building in winter or cool a dwelling in summer. This form of energy can lessen the need for other power to maintain comfortable temperatures in buildings, but it cannot be used to produce electricity.
Tides, waves, and the heat differential within the world’s tropical oceans are potent sources of clean energy. Various countries around the world are investing time and money into the technologies that may tap these renewable power producers, but overcoming the obstacles inherent in these systems will be difficult. The media and industry claim that renewable energies are not yet economically competitive with fossil fuels. Perhaps not, but when one considers the health and environmental costs associated with burning coal and oil, the price of renewable energy becomes more attractive. No renewable energy system will single-handedly replace oil, but together they will become a very important part of the energy mix of the future. Traditional renewable systems are a logical step in the transition to advanced alternative energy sources such as cold fusion. Although scientists and engineers are working feverishly to overcome the various obstacles associated with “new energy” technologies, society should not stand by quietly while researchers wait for a breakthrough. Burning petroleum is polluting our air and water, and the bulk of the world’s reserves of cheap oil are concentrated in the politically volatile Persian Gulf. Getting that oil will likely cost billions of dollars and possibly the lives of American soldiers.
Every year American’s consume 25% of all the energy produced in the world, but that conspicuous consumption can’t last forever. To that end, the U.S. Department of Energy established the Renewable Energy Production Incentive (REPI) as part of an integrated strategy in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. This act promotes increases in the generation and utilization of electricity from renewable energy sources and furthers the advances of renewable energy technologies. In 1996, the Renewable Energy Policy Project released “The Environmental Imperative,” a plan for the energy market to draw on renewable energy to avoid the severe environmental impacts of the fossil fuel cycle. This plan outlines the environmental imperative for accelerating the use of renewable resources. It is important to realize that it usually takes thirty to forty years to significantly shift fuel patterns and that using electricity as an alternative to oil will require a major adjustment by the American public. The window of opportunity to make this energy transition without a major economic disruption will not be open for long.
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